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MAN AMONG BOYS
SoVaNow.com / December 12, 2013After three decades as Halifax County Recreation Director, to say nothing of his youthful exploits on the basketball court, Brad Ballou believes he has a pretty good idea of what it takes to be a successful coach.
It’s not something he could do, Ballou adds.
“I got to playing basketball and ended up getting a scholarship and going to school,” Ballou recalled of the days four decades ago when he patrolled the lane as a standout ballplayer for Elon College, now Elon University. “When I got out of school, I was like, ‘What am I going to do now?’
“I’m way too laid back to be a coach. I’m just too easy-going,” he continued. Coaches, he explained, have to get after their players. They can’t hesitate to get in people’s faces. The best coaches are demanding, aggressive, borderline hyperactive.
Brad Ballou is anything but hyperactive.
Yet there is one prerequisite for success as coach of young athletes that Ballou, a towering man at 6’-9”, unquestionably would have met.
“It helps to be a whole lot bigger than they are.”
Coaching’s loss has been Halifax County’s gain for the past 38 years that Ballou has spent with the county recreation department, all but five as its director. That era comes to a close at the end of this month when Ballou, a few days shy of his 60th birthday, will retire.
He’ll be leaving a job he loves, “not because I’m burnt out, but because I want to do something different in life while I still can.” He’ll depart in the knowledge that he’s been a positive influence in the lives of countless young people — although with typical modesty, this is praise that Ballou deflects onto others.
“The volunteers” — the adults who give their time to coach — “are the basic nucleus of the whole thing,” he said in an interview this week. “All the director does is get to work with the volunteers …. People are always trying to give back. I was just in a situation were I was a vehicle for people to give back.”
Without the efforts of these coach-volunteers, some of whom have stuck with leagues through several generations of athletes, there wouldn’t be much of a recreation department to manage.
“Rural recreation is set up on a team structure for no other reason than time and resources,” Ballou noted. “You’ve got to reach as many people as you can with the least amount of money that you can.
“Most rural counties don’t even have a recreation department.”
Halifax is fortunate to have two major assets undergirding its rec department: the Mary Bethune Complex, with its indoor gym and outdoor playing fields, and Edmunds Park, which expanded the department’s mission to serve people outside the context of sports.
Still, youth leagues are the recreation department’s major order of business: the county oversees youth football and basketball, and volleyball leagues for girls and adult women, in addition to providing money and resources for sports such as baseball, softball and soccer that are run independently, by the Dixie, Babe Ruth and AYSO organizations, among others. Staying on top of the dozens of schedules is a never-ending job.
“We stay busy,” said Ballou.
He sees his main job as bringing people together, working out responsibilities, smoothing out potential problems. “What could I do if I can’t coach?” asked Ballou rhetorically. “Fortunately, I got into recreation, which was right up my alley. It was more about participating and planning, which fit me pretty good.
“I got to do something I really wanted to do, which was help out the kids. Which is what people did for me.”
From childhood onward, Ballou said, he had the benefit of growing up in a household with strong parents, plus the benefit of adults outside the home who pushed him to make the most of his athletic gifts. He points to four men in particular — Gatha Richardson, his elementary school principal; Johnny Robertson, his basketball coach at Mary Bethune in the years prior to school integration; Bill Morningstar, head basketball coach at Halifax County Senior High School; and Bill Miller, the coach of the Elon College team.
Each of these teachers and coaches, in their own way, “decided my life,” said Ballou. ”They pushed you. They would not let you stop doing what you were supposed to do. If you weren’t doing something right in school, they would let you know about it. If you weren’t doing right on the court, same thing.”
In high school, Ballou was part of legendary Comet basketball teams, playing alongside Calvin Crews, the 6’-11” center who squared off against future NBA All-Century team member Moses Malone in the 1977 state championship game (Ballou graduated the year before), along with standouts such Jack Crews (Calvin’s brother), Diffy Ross, Howard White, Boxley Llewellyn, Jerry Brooks and others. Morningstar was the taskmaster, the disciplinarian, who pushed the Comets to heights that the school’s athletic program has matched only rarely since. “We had some pretty high level players out there,” said Ballou.
After graduating from high school in 1976, Ballou went on to Elon to play ball. There he came into contact with Elon coach Miller, who also hired Morningstar that year as an assistant. “I always thought Morningstar was the meanest man I’ve ever seen,” said Ballou, “and I went to college and found he was the one who was consoling people and putting them back together after Coach Miller broke them down.” Despite the rigorous demands of college ball, Ballou excelled — becoming team captain and an All-Carolina Conference honoree before his playing days were over. More importantly, he got his degree.
In high school, Ballou drew interest from major college programs, with recruiters wooing him with promises of sending him down the path towards a pro basketball career. Miller took a different tack. During a visit to the home, the Elon coach announced, “Give me that boy right here and in four years I’ll bring you back a man with a diploma in his hand.” Continuing the story, Ballou said: “After he left, my mom said, ‘It’s your decision … but I think you need to go with that man, because he’s telling you the truth.’ The big schools would be talking about how many people they’ve got in the pros. He was the only one talking about [education].”
As kids rise through the Halifax County Recreation League, adults have that same opportunity to make a positive influence: “I’ve seen a lot of [volunteers] change these kids’ lives for the better. A lot of them,” said Ballou. Coaches will push kids to do well in all aspects of their lives: “These guys want to see the report cards. They’ll make the kids bring their report cards to practice. You’ve got to remember, that’s time when these kids could be studying.”
It’s not uncommon, he added, for parents to appeal to coaches to make academic demands of their children. “A lot of kids who fall behind in school — the mother will go talk to the coach and have them talk to the [child] …. They’ll do things for the coach they won’t do at home.
“I’ve seen a bunch of kids crying when the season is over — not because they lost, but because they can’t be with their coach anymore.”
Kids today sometimes get a bad rap from their elders, but Ballou said he’s had almost no trouble with the youths who’ve come through the county rec programs.
“Nowadays we have very little discipline problems. I bet I we haven’t called a technical foul in basketball in a long time. Maybe we’ve called eight technical fouls in the past ten years.” Kids, he said, “will do what you expect them to do. But as far as talking back and being unruly, if they’re coming to play sports like basketball and football and see a big guy standing in front of them … they fall in line pretty quick.”
Not that Ballou wouldn’t mind seeing more discipline injected in the lives of young people today. “The kids are beautiful. We don’t have any problems with that. A lot of them just don’t have a father in their life. The girls do pretty well. We don’t have a problem with them.”
Sports, he said, is the teacher of valuable lessons, the leveler of playing fields. “Some of the unfortunate kids come in and get to have a role model” for the first time in their lives, and “some of the fortunate kids find out they can’t have everything they want” when their team loses or the player rides the bench. “Sports reflect life. Sometimes you go out there with the best you got and still lose.” Ballou may have been a basketball star, “but in my own life, walking up the street, I was just taller than the other boys, that’s all.”
Yesterday, the community was invited to drop by the Bethune Complex to pay respects to the outgoing director, a send-off that Ballou admitted he wasn’t exactly looking forward to. (“Hey, the powers that be,” he said. “I’m not going to start being disagreeable now.”)
He denied feeling any rush of emotion as his retirement date beckons: “Matt will get sentimental,” he said, referring to South Boston Recreation Director Matthew McCargo, whom Ballou praises effusively. “A kid will come in and tell him how he changed his life, and Matt will start crying. A kid comes to me and says that, and I’m like, ‘Hey, time I got movin’ on.”
This time, Ballou will be moving on without immediate cause to look back, but if he does, he keep in mind something he’s seen over and over again during all his time in youth sports: memories made on the playing fields and ballfields at a young age — real or imagined — stay with people for a long, long time.
“These are stories that can be told the rest of our lives. Everyone gets to be in there at the end of the buzzer. It’s a lot of fun being had out there. That’s the main thing.”
Comments...sounds like the fellow i grew up with and even "walked up the street" with a time or two. congratulations on your retirement as you move to the next phase. and to the author, nice story on a good guy...
- By David Gibson Jr. on 12 / 12 / 13
CommentsI agree. Great article about a great dedicated man. Brad - Thirty some years ago you were frustrated with the sixty to seventy hours that you put in. You were a one man department with very little help. One night you told me you had enough of the long hours and you were going to put in an application for the post office. How lucky the county was that you never did. One man organized the teams, kept peace with the coaches and fans, cut and lined the fields. You are a true asset for the county. You, Matt McCargo, and Bill Bennett will always be remembered for the dedication to the kids and the county. Good Luck My Friend!
- By Dennis Perkins on 12 / 12 / 13
- By Nannie Graves Dixon on 12 / 17 / 13
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